Franklin Roosevelt had three Vice Presidents — John Nance Garner, Henry A. Wallace and of course give em hell Harry S. Truman. Since then only Richard Nixon had two — Spiro Agnew and Gerald Ford — and that was born out of criminality. Tobacco chewing Garner famously said the office was not worth a bucket of spit, and for years it was hard to argue with his assessment. Our vice presidents were mostly understudies on deathwatch with the odds of ever taking center stage stacked against them. Nonetheless, nine such watchers did move up including the forgettable Millard Fillmore, but also Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Teddy Roosevelt, unquestionably one of our greats, came to office when another president’s heart stopped.
One would think that eight in-office deaths would have put greater pressure on presidents to better prepare their Veeps, to bring them more into what one called the loop. Truman was famously uninformed, this despite FDR’s having been in such poor health that his succession was considered a foregone conclusion upon nomination at the 1944 convention. It took the ninth, John F Kennedy’s, and a subsequent 14-month vice presidential vacancy to command the proper attention resulting in the 1967 25th Amendment. Its importance came into play almost immediately in the dual Agnew-Nixon disgraces resulting in two vice presidential appointments in succession: Ford and then Nelson Rockefeller.
In the wake of that experience, Jimmy Carter literally transformed the office by making Fritz Mondale the first authentic vice presidential partner. Neither Reagan nor the G.H.W. Bush went quite that far, but clearly Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama did. Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have all been major, at times decisive, players in their respective administrations.
Perhaps most of our vice presidents haven’t been more than frustrated understudies or the office more valuable than that bucket of spit, but it seems every time a president faces reelection talk abounds about changing out his number two. The argument usually goes that the president would be a stronger second term prospect with a different running mate. Nixon, as Ike’s Veep, was haunted by such talk, as were both Quale and Chaney. Lyndon Johnson was never a favorite of the Kennedy crowd and talk of his replacement began the day after he was sworn in as number two in January 1961. So here we go again.
Bill Keller is only the latest pundit to suggest that President Obama consider rearranging his administration by switching Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton’s seats around the table. That particular idea was floated back in '08 when some saw the then Senators as better candidates for the offices they didn’t get than for the ones that they took. Biden, the Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, seemed a natural for State; with a near nomination win, many Clinton supporters felt she was entitled to be vice president. An Obama-Clinton pairing was seen to be a dream ticket, but unquestionably one that presented all kinds of issues, not the least a Bill problem.
Three years in, it’s more than fair to say both Biden and Clinton have substantially out performed expectations. Biden has been among the most active and effective of vice presidents. Beyond all else, he has served as an important counterbalance to the hawkish generals whom Obama, like all Democratic presidents must, has had to pay due deference. Clinton has been a remarkably adroit and effective diplomat walking the walk (or flying it) and gaining respect both at home and abroad. Few thought he, the unbridled talker, and she, the thwarted candidate, would be an easy or disciplined fit in subordinate roles. It is a tribute first to them and also to the president that such calculations were unfounded. It is no less a tribute to this trio that the idea of a switch is so viable, whether or not it is desirable, possible or probable. Perhaps some people had trouble thinking of Biden or Clinton going into their current roles, but no one questions for a moment either taking on the other’s job today or doing so with distinction.
So it appears that nothing should stand in the way of making this switch. For sure Clinton’s many dedicated 2008 supporters would be delighted to get their dream ticket at long last. In what is likely to be a challenging, some say inevitably close race, it could make the difference between victory and loss. Neither is this a novel argument nor is history on the side of a switch. Sitting vice presidents simply don’t get dislodged. Carter/Mondale, Bush/Quale, Clinton/Gore, Bush/Chaney — the first two pairs lost their reelection bid the second two won. Regardless, both teams remained in tact. Talk of replacing vice presidents was often rooted in dissatisfaction. Quale, for example, was never more than a mystifying choice and Cheney had taken on his Darth Vader persona. Nothing like that exists today. Quite the contrary, the hopes of Clinton supporters notwithstanding, Joe Biden’s selection was greeted positively when first made and his performance has only enhanced his image. He is neither seen as a lightweight or as a Star Wars villain. But perhaps most important, the Vice President seems to like his job and, by all accounts, the President feels the same in having him at his side. End of story.
Talk of switching out vice presidents has been a favorite parlor game for both political junkies and the opportunistic manufacturers of news who live off it. It has always been a sideshow and distraction — and likely to remain so. Nonetheless, there is one aspect this time around that makes it both different and deserving of some serious attention. In fact, it presents an opportunity for a discussion that shouldn’t be missed. Secretary Clinton is a woman. Switch outs may never have happened, but seven twentieth century vice presidents moved on to the presidency and two more were their party’s nominees. Holding the office is not inconsequential. Possession has proven to be nine-tenths of the law. In that, replacing Biden with Clinton might present our best shot of finally getting a Ms. President into the White House. I think Mondale had that in mind in picking Geraldine A. Ferraro (who died last March) as his 1984 running mate.
It is a sad commentary on our country that a decade into the twenty-first century there are so few women — some might argue virtually none — politically well positioned for the presidency. We can make all the partisan jokes we want, but that John McCain had to select a Sarah Palin reflects badly on all of us. The reality is that he had no deep or even viable candidate bench. The Democrats remain equally impoverished in that regard. Just try and make your pick. I’ll give you the minute McCain seems to have taken and be assured that aside from Hilary Clinton no name will come instantly and easily to mind. Let’s remember that an African American’s rise to the presidency in the ordinary elective way was the exception, not the rule. Fundamental change — in this case bringing a woman in striking distance of the presidency — often, if now always, has to be force-fed in this great country. To our shame, we badly lag behind other democracies in female leaders. And before we give them too much credit, that may not have happened either absent the precedent established when women ascended to the throne — that only because there was no male heir. Elizabeth, and the few but notable queens before her, laid the groundwork for a Thatcher. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
I don’t think an Obama-Clinton ticket is in the cards, or that his re-election is anyway dependent on replacing Biden. At the same time, I can’t help but being somewhat disappointed that we will, for very good and understandable reasons, miss this opportunity. We can’t really have change in America or fulfill its dream until women have been mainstreamed into both the circles and the pinnacle of leadership. Considering that the hypothetical dream ticket is more than likely to win in November, the election that’s all about the economy could end up being a tangible and most necessary game changer, dream fulfiller. That possibility is, at the very least, worth contemplating.
Don’t believe the partisan left-right rhetoric, there is no black and white in political decision-making. To paraphrase good old Harry: if you’re looking for pure, get out of the political kitchen. So Obama, even if he wants to make history, will likely stay the course. Bill Clinton always characterized his big decisions as the right thing to do. Some (not all) of that could be discounted as hyperbole. It’s intriguing to think Obama might consider Hilary Clinton as his 2012 running mate. In the ideal world — wherever that may be — it might turly be the right thing to do. Right for him — yes. Right for the country — absolutely.